Highs and Lows from Bolivia to Peru

From Uyuni, I took a bus to La Paz and continued directly on to Copacabana. As I passed through the city, I was thinking perhaps I should have stayed there for a bit. I’d heard mixed reviews, but to me it looked like a nice place with lots of interesting culture. I could see the naturaleza of which I’d been told – far more “rustic” than my experience in Argentina and Chile. Plus everything in Bolivia is CHEAP. Seriously cheap.

But on I went to Copacabana, a small town on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, where I caught a ferry to Isla Del Sol in the middle of the lake. Lake Titicaca is the highest elevation navigable lake in the world. Once on the island, I paid my tariff (the first of many) and hiked directly and literally uphill and found a hostel for the night. I was pretty eager for a shower after traveling for 17 hours straight from Uyuni where I’d only had one shower during the tour that was not exactly hot and lacked much water pressure. Sadly, I soon learned I’d have to wait a bit longer for a hot shower and suffered through another cold one. After settling in, I wandered further uphill to explore and find a place for dinner. I decided on a small restaurant facing the other side of the island where I could watch the sunset, then it was early to bed.

I woke early the next morning in time to see the last of the sunrise just outside of my door. I set off early to do the hike around the island starting along the trail on the western shore. I’m not sure if I was up way too early or if there just aren’t that many people doing the hike in a single day, but I hardly saw anyone along the way until I got nearer the northern end. The silence and sense of isolation was very peaceful and welcome for my morning hike. That is until I approached a little building that appeared deserted, paused to take a picture, heard some dogs barking, then realized the barking dogs were running for me. Caught off guard and unsure what to do, I turned to walk on my way thinking they might just leave me alone until I felt something on my calf. I looked down and realized these dogs weren’t kidding. One had actually bit me. Still not knowing what to do I scrambled up a pile of rocks out or reach until the dogs seemed to lose interest and walked away. I climbed down and started to run a bit along the trail only to hear more barking and see the dogs chasing after me again. This time I did not turn my back on them and walked backward, kicking dirt at them until I was far enough from the house that I guess they felt they’d extricated the threat for good. Now I wish I had a picture of the dogs, because mind you, they were not large. I can only imagine what would have happened if they were. I checked my calf and was happy to see that the dog had only torn a whole in my leggings and not drawn any blood. No rabies shots for me!

Just as I had been thinking I wished I had more time in Bolivia, I now suddenly couldn’t wait to leave. After completing the circle of the island, I picked up my stuff and took the ferry back to Copacabana. I had already purchased a bus ticket from there to Puno, the city on the Peru side of Lake Titicaca, though now was hoping to change it and go straight to Arequipa. I arrived at the office with exactly 0 Bolivianos, having spent my last 12 on a banana smoothie on the island. The woman informed me I could change the ticket, so I off I went to the ATM to withdraw some more money. Unfortunately the luck I’d had in La Paz continued and none of my cards worked. Panic ensued, I ran around a lot, and finally she said I could go to Puno and withdraw money there (I figured maybe Bolivian ATMs didn’t like me). Of course that was not the problem and I still could not get money at the Puno bus station. Luckily I ran into the nicest woman who offered to pay my taxi fare to get to her hostel where I could then sort things out. Normally I would not have done this, but it turned out to be quite a nice hostel. The woman even gave me some food and tea that night and let me use the phone to call my bank. Finally, it seemed things were resolved and the next day when I saw cash dispensed from the happy mouth of the ATM I was fully relieved.

Things in Peru were looking up! I was excited to arrive in Arequipa next, having heard several great things about it. I went to a hostel that was recommended and was happy to hear they had space. The owner of the hostel, Jose, truly makes you feel at home. He recommended several things to do in the city and advised me of areas to stay away from. He also spoke to me in Spanish though he knew I spoke English (many people who speak English seem to answer that way, even though I ask in Spanish and am hoping to practice). Arequipa is the first city I’ve visited that I’ve read is known for its food. Obviously, I was pretty excited about that and my days there consisted of eating, visiting markets, and taking pictures around the city.

Goodness, I hardly did anything this week, yet it seems so full of activity, or maybe just anxiety. I’m in Cusco now and very excited to have my first visitor: my brother!!! Tomorrow we set off on a 4-day trek along the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu!

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Desert, Lakes, & Salt Flats

I know the suspense must be killing you. The answer is yes, Chile was nice to me this time. After yet another lengthy bus ride, I arrived in San Pedro de Atacama. My fellow bus riders and I looked around in uncertainty when we pulled up to the bus terminal, all quietly wondering “Is this really it?” All I could see was a few buildings and a lot of dirt. But yes, I was in the right place: welcome to San Pedro de Atacama, a town in the Atacama Desert where it rains only twice a year.

I didn’t know much about the town prior to my arrival other than that the tours to Salar de Uyuni started there. After finding a hostel, I learned from the very friendly and helpful owners how much there is to do in the surrounding area. I also learned that for the moment there were no tours to Uyuni due to a petrol strike in Bolivia – a little foreshadowing of the change I’d experience after crossing the border into Bolivia. As I was told, “todo en Bolivia es naturaleza.” Both of these reasons gave me a day to spend exploring the area (and acclimating). I opted for renting a bike in the morning to go visit El Valle de la Luna, named for its resemblance to the surface of the moon and considered one of the driest places on Earth. Due to its extremely dry and unique terrain, it has been used by scientists as a testing place for Mars rover prototypes.

After my roughly 4-hour morning adventure, I returned to the hostel to join an organized tour visiting a few more of the surrounding areas, including Cejar Lagoon and Salar de Atacama. Cejar Lagoon is a lake in the middle of the desert with around a 25% salt content in which visitors are permitted to swim, or float rather. While it wasn’t terribly warm out and the water was quite cold, I forced myself to jump in and experience this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The sensation was so strange – not only did I float, but I could hardly keep my legs underwater when I tried. Seems like it would be pretty convenient for a pool party. Once I got out of the water and dried, I was covered with a white salty crust. For once, I had something else to blame my paleness on.

After the Cejar Lagoon, we made our way to the Salar de Atacama – the largest salt flat in Chile. I didn’t particularly care about this visit since I was still planning to visit Uyuni (the largest salt flat in the world), but I was told the Atacama one currently had water on it and was reflecting while Uyuni was not. I couldn’t pass that up. The tour arrived shortly before sunset in time for some really spectacular sights and unworthy photos.

I had found out earlier in the day that the strike in Bolivia was over and the tours were on again, so I booked one leaving the next day. I was picked up at the hostel and taken to the border crossing, where I paid for my visa, met my driver (Edgar), loaded into a 4×4 with backpacks strapped to the top, and set off on the 3-day journey. I won’t go into excruciating detail, but the first day consisted of several stops: Laguna Blanca and Laguna Verde (both colored by the different minerals they contain), views of the volcano Licancabur, hot springs, geysers, and Laguna Colorada, which is inhabited by pink flamingos. During the day, we reached an altitude of 4930 meters before reaching our refugio (hostel) at just 4500 meters, also making for terribly cold nights at around 0°C.

My head had started to hurt progressively throughout the day and it was becoming apparent I hadn’t been drinking enough water. At the refugio, Edgar brought me coca leaves to have in a tea that is supposed to help with the altitude. I drank that and plenty more water, though my headache did not improve. Once dinner was served, I forced down a little bit of food, and quickly learned both that my stomach wasn’t fond of that idea and I truly had altitude sickness. A doctor at the refugio gave me a couple of pills and I immediately went to bed. Not a great first night.

Thankfully, the second day I felt much better and was able to enjoy the rest of the trip. Day 2 was a lot of driving with visits to el Arbol de Piedra and several lakes. We descended quite a bit in altitude and ended the day at Hotel de Sal, a building that is actually made from the salt and has salt floors. There I was happy to have a semi-warm shower and a hot meal that agreed with me.

The third and final day had an early start at 4:30am in order to go see the sunrise on the Salar de Uyuni, the pinnacle of the trip. The Atacama salt flat pales in comparison to Uyuni. The expanse of Salar de Uyuni is literally awesome, stretching 12000 square kilometers and going 7-8 meters deep. The primary lesson I learned that day was I should have practiced taking pictures. There is a lot to play with given the lack of perspective, but I found it surprisingly tough to figure out. Also, not so easy without friends with whom to get into it.

Up next: making my way north through Bolivia and into Peru!